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Guatemalan advocate works for peace, justice

Laura Bodien | Thursday, November 2, 2006

When her sister was murdered on Sept. 11, 1990, Helen Mack Chang was enlightened.

“I was born,” Chang, one of Guatemala’s most vocal advocates for justice and reconciliation of the country’s 36-year civil war, told an audience Tuesday in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies. “My spirit was enriched.”

Chang is the winner of the 2005 Notre Dame Prize for Distinguished Service in Latin America. After she won the 1992 Right Livelihood Award – a Swedish award often called the “alternative Nobel Prize”- Chang used the monetary portion of her award to found the Myrna Mack Foundation in honor of her deceased sister.

Chang said she formed the foundation to bring justice to political villains who murdered and brutally stabbed her sister 27 times and who have tortured, tormented and killed countless other Guatemalans.

Different groups or regions work in conjunction with organized crime to control various sections of the country, she said.

While more than 60 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, “the government doesn’t worry about trying to better life of the citizens,” Chang said.

In addition to the socioeconomic concerns, she said, modern times have incited fresh incidences of violence and oppression.

Roughly 6,000 people die each year and nearly 96 percent of the homicides go unpunished according to records from the justice department, she said.

Statistics like this further validate the mission of the Myrna Mack Foundation, Chang said, adding that such numbers prove that the justice and security institutions are not working like they used to.

The political system no longer consists of multiple parties, but simply recycles past military personnel as politicians, she said. The military, she said, basically served to kill off Guatemalans opposed to those in power for a long while.

Fourteen years of hard work and perseverance have not been enough for Chang. Even after the sentencing of her sister’s murderers and the acceptance of responsibility for its occurrence by the government, she recognizes the problem still exists.

There are currently 185 pending cases of persons who have disappeared, been murdered or tortured in correlation with political motives, she said. It is Chang’s hope that one day all such cases be reconciled completely.

“Every community has the government it deserves,” Chang said. “We need to provoke [that government] in Guatemala.”

With 70 percent of the Guatemalan population lacking an education, Chang said it is difficult to rally people and help them understand the solution to oppression.

Chang said she hopes students in the U.S. – including those at Notre Dame – will take an interest in the American political system. Young people need to be informed, she said, and need to recognize that many of the fears Americans are experiencing now are similar to those experienced by Guatemalans nearly 30 years ago – specifically, censorship and limits on personal freedoms.

But Chang said she refuses to be paralyzed by fear any longer and will continue her struggle for justice and reconciliation.

Chang is an honorary member of both the National Advisory Security Council and Guatemala’s Commission on Strengthening Justice.